Peppermint Oil Relieves Nerve Pain
Topical applied peppermint oil may provide relief from a painful and difficult-to-treat nerve condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia, according to a case report in The Clinical Journal of Pain(2002;18:200–2). If confirmed, this report may represent a breakthrough in the treatment of this common, frustrating, and sometimes debilitating condition.
Post-herpetic neuralgia is a chronic pain syndrome that occurs in some individuals (particularly the elderly) following a skin infection known as herpes zoster or "shingles." Outbreaks of herpes zoster are caused by Varicella zoster, the same virus responsible for chickenpox. Although not everyone who suffers an episode of shingles ends up with post-herpetic neuralgia, those who do develop this secondary result of the disease often suffer for years, and many fail to respond to all that modern medicine has to offer.
The new report concerns a 76-year-old woman who had been suffering for three years from postherpetic neuralgia affecting the right breast and inner part of the upper arm. Treatment with painkillers, various other medications, and acupuncture had failed to provide relief. Based on a theory that a component of peppermint oil (menthol) might diminish the body's perception of pain, her doctor instructed her to apply two or three drops of peppermint oil to the affected area three or four times per day. Each application resulted in a stinging sensation that lasted two minutes and was followed by almost complete relief of pain for approximately six hours. When the effect wore off, the pain returned to its original severity; however, the woman was able to control her pain almost completely by repeatedly applying the oil.
After four weeks of treatment, the woman began to develop redness at the site of application. The peppermint oil was therefore diluted by 80% with almond oil. Application of the diluted preparation did not cause redness, but did continue to produce "adequate," though somewhat less-pronounced, pain relief.
A single case report does not prove that peppermint oil is effective, and in the absence of a control group, a placebo effect cannot be ruled out. However, the fact that the woman had previously failed to benefit from a wide range of conventional and alternative therapies makes “placebo effect” an unlikely explanation for her improvement.
Peppermint oil does not cure post-herpetic neuralgia; rather, it appears only to control the symptoms. However, for many individuals coping with this chronic condition, symptom relief would be welcomed. It may be hoped that this case report will stimulate researchers to perform a more definitive study. Because the long-term effect of topically applied peppermint oil has not been studied, individuals wishing to try this treatment should consult a doctor.
Alan R. Gaby, MD, an expert in nutritional therapies, served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. He is the Medical Editor for Clinical Essentials Alert, is the author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima, 1994), and co-author of The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), Clinical Essentials Volume 1 and 2 (Healthnotes, 2000), and The Patient’s Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999). Currently he is the Endowed Professor of Nutrition at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, Kenmore, WA.
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